This year was a a bit of a blur. Starting off 2011 with the birth of my son–while awesome–isn’t exactly conducive to going out and seeing live music on a regular basis. However, this didn’t keep me from at least trying to keep a finger (albeit a tired finger) on the pulse of what was going on in music. It’s obviously not that difficult to find new music these days, with digital music services Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Spotify becoming more popular, and the old faithfuls like Amazon, iTunes, and emusic continue to serve music to the masses.
Throughout 2011, a lot of new (or new to me, at least) bands put out some interesting and inventive albums. And some of the tried-and-true released excellent albums we’ve come to expect. But as always, there are some releases that just stick with me more than others–the ones I return to again and again throughout the year.
Without further ado…
Houston Calling‘s favorite albums of 2011
1. A.A. Bondy, Believers (Fat Possum)
Bondy’s third solo album attracted my attention the most this year, though it seems to have flown under most people’s radars. Which is unfortunate, as the songs on Believers are languid, dark, and hopeful–a powerful combination when coupled with Bondy’s low-key delivery and classic songwriting style. Ryan Adams may get more attention but A.A. Bondy is the one that deserves it.
VIDEO: “Surfer King”
2. The Drift, Blue Hour (Temporary Residence)
A review I read of the album called it "intense, dark, sullen and substantial…but
it’s also beautiful"–an apt description of this San Francisco-based
instrumental band’s music. While past albums veered more toward the jazzier
side of things, Blue Hour takes a more ambient and experimental approach. It’s definitely one of the most interesting albums I listened to in 2011.
VIDEO: “Dark Passage”
3. Fleet Foxes, Helplessness Blues (Sub Pop)
I more or less ignored their first release but was blown away by a live performance of "Mykonos" I saw online. Maybe I am a bit more mellow these days–and I understand the band’s light, folk-infused music isn’t for everyone–but the songs on this album are addictive and beautiful reminders of love and loss written by a young songwriter wise beyond his years. There is a reason Helplessness Blues is on the majority of year-end best-of lists this year.
VIDEO: “Sim Sala Bim” (live)
4. Robert Ellis, Photographs (New West)
The first of several Houston musicians on my favorites list this year, Ellis experienced a well-deserved breakthrough in 2011 and garnered national attention. Album opener "Friends Like Those" is without a doubt one of the best songs I heard all year. Here’s what I wrote in my review of the album:
Although Photograph‘s folksier moments bring to mind the sincerity and simplicity of early James Taylor–especially on the impressive opener "Friends Like Those"–Ellis’ classic country influences are apparent throughout. The album’s most countrified moment is "What’s In It For Me?" (available on limited edition vinyl at his website and which you can stream here), a throwback reminiscent to any number of 70s-era country songs. And that’s the beauty of Ellis’ music: it’s good enough to hold its own with the greats (he gives nods to "Lefty, Willie, Hank, and Townes" on "Comin’ Home") while still appealing to a diverse audience. Where a lesser musician playing this style of music might come off hackneyed or derivative, Ellis instead brings a smooth, irony-free approach that lends honesty to his songs. And there’s not much more a listener can ask of an album.
VIDEO: "Friends Like Those" (live)
5. Cults, Self-titled (Columbia)
The group’s blend of sixties female-fronted soul with low-key indie rock
is inventive and catchy. I had ignored the hype for a while but decided
to check out the band’s free in-store show at Cactus Music. I was sold
within seconds, and haven’t been able to stop listening to the album since.
6. Mogwai, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will (Sub Pop)
The fact that these Scottish rockers are still making music that’s both relevant and inventive shows why they’re one of the longest-standing purveyors of (mostly) instrumental rock. Hardcore… ranks among the band’s best, and I also suggest checking out their recent live album as well–it’s where they’re in their element.
7. Wilco, The Whole Love (dBpm/ANTI)
Say what you will about the band’s latest efforts, but a single listen to the "The Art Of Almost," the intro track of The Whole Love, was enough to rank it among my favorites this year. Check out a live video for the song below and judge for yourself. I got chills, they’re multiplyin’…
VIDEO: "Art Of Almost" (live)
VIDEO: "Amor Fati"
9. Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Self-titled (Sour Mash)
I am one of the few people I know that actually like the last two Oasis albums, and I much prefer the elder brother Gallagher’s voice to the overly nasal whine of frontman Liam. On his first solo effort it’s evident Noel’s musical talent runs deeper than his brother’s, and throughout Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, he leads listeners through an amalgam of genres and styles that undoubtedly will please both his former band’s hardcore fans and attract the ones turned off by the siblings’ previous, much-publicized antics.
This review from MusicRadar sums it up best:
…The 10 songs on Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds rank
as the best set of material the singer-songwriter and guitarist
has assembled since (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? As
it is with the best of composers, the emotional buttons–desperate,
angry, joyful, melancholy and everything else–are right there
in plain sight, but the light and dark between the hues are swimming
about, too, and they’re up for grabs…
VIDEO: “AKA…What A Life!”
10. Pale, In The Time Of Dangerous Men (A Blake)
Houston rock band Pale is one of the most ambitious groups in town, and the band’s appetite for the big time is as big as their sound (and their videos). This album further proves that Blue October shouldn’t be the only rock band from Houston in the spotlight. Here’s what I wrote about the album in my review:
Last year, Pale released the single and video for "Catastrophic Skies." While the song wasn’t exactly a stretch for the band, there were brief hints of a musical shift in focus. In The Time Of Dangerous Men finds the foursome interjecting rawer-edged garage and danceable 80′s New Wave into the over-the-top bombast that’s defined the band’s music for years. For a band best known for its Muse-esque anthems, this is a surprising–albeit welcome–change…Pale always shoots big with its music. If 2007′s Mandatory Ambulance EP was the band moving forward, In The Time Of Dangerous Men is Pale propelling itself into a likely prosperous future.
VIDEO: “That Sinking Feeling”
11. Dead Sons, Singles ("Berlin," "I Am The Lord", "Junk Room") / Boom Booom EP (Self-released)
I found out about this new-ish Sheffield, England, band during some South By Southwest-related searches, and the band’s dark and spacey, over-the-top psych-rock burrowed its way into my head this year. With nods to Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and Kasabian, Dead Sons manages to one-up many of its peers. It’ll be interesting to watch this band grow in 2012.
12. Ryan Adams, Ashes & Fire (Pax-Am)
While Adams may never make another album that grabs me as much as Whiskeytown’s Stranger’s Almanac, I’ll never tire of listening to the music he creates. I often prefer his bands to his more mellow solo work, but there’s no denying the songcraft on Ashes & Fire. For the most part, Adams keep it pop-free and acoustic, with subtle nods to Jerry Garcia–who heavily influenced his past work with The Cardinals–and Bob Dylan (the latter most evident on "Ashes & Fire").
VIDEO: "Dirty Rain"
VIDEO: "Broken Side Of Time"
14. Thundercat, The Golden Age of Apocalypse (Brainfeeder)
Some crazy, funked-out electro-jazz you have to hear to believe, especially mind-blowing when you know that bassist Stephen Bruner also plays for punk legends Suicidal Tendencies. The obvious Jaco Pastorius influence makes …Apocaplyse even more special.
VIDEO: "For Love I Come"
15. Pallers, The Sea Of Memories (Labrador)
One of the best things about the Internet, and digital music in general, is that I can find out about some random, 80s-influenced Scandinavian electronic band, buy the album on a whim based on some review I read, and it steadily becomes one of my favorites. Moody, yet not depressing, the songs on The Sea Of Memories are expertly crafted electro-pop that hearkens back to the 80s without being overly dancey. It’s mellow enough to appeal to those not really into electronic music, yet electronic enough for electro fans to savor.
VIDEO: "The Video Of Memories"
16. The War On Drugs, Slave Ambient (Secretly Canadian)
This is one of those albums people kept telling me about, and once I finally broke down and downloaded it I wondered why it had taken me so long. Pitchfork best described the album:
…it’s as if the Spiritualized and Springsteen albums filed alphabetically
next to one another in your record collection had melted together on a
hot August afternoon…
VIDEO: "Baby Missiles"
17. Steven Wilson, Grace For Drowning (kscope)
When he’s not fronting prog rockers Porcupine Tree, making music with side projects Blackfield and No-Man, or producing remastered King Crimson and Jethro Tull albums, Wilson somehow finds the time to create impressive solo work as well. Grace
For Drowning is not so much a departure from Wilson’s other ventures as it is an extension of them, with somber and progressive jams taking center stage, and an experimental jazz influence apparent throughout. The soundscapes from his initial solo outing Insurgentes have given way to better-formed songs, best evicenced by "Deform To Form A Star" and the 23-plus-minute jam "Raider II."
LISTEN: "Deform To Form A Star"
18. The Answer Page, Orca (Self-released)
A newbie on the Houston music front, musician Nate McKee penned an excellent break-up album that I found hard to put down once I heard it. Here’s what I wrote in my review of Orca:
The songs on Orca document the disintegration of a relationship and a man ultimately coming to terms with being alone. McKee, who not only played all of the instruments but produced, mixed, and mastered the album as well, takes the finer points of the "post-rock" genre–the slow, melodic guitars and gradually building tempos–and adds vocals that complement, but never overpower, his songs. Lyrically, the album starts off with the "all we need is love" adage that so often collapses in on itself in youth. Listeners will easily relate to "Shimmer"’s "Roll the windows down, let’s leave behind / the things we worried about / no one can ever hurt us here…the summer’s everlasting" heartfelt sentiment. But love quickly deteriorates, and most of Orca finds McKee in reflective solitude, pining away for his lost love. "Cold Blue Light (In Circles)" and "Our Words Without Meaning" (on which he sings, "It’s not the end if I fall in love with the sound of everything undone") best chronicles this loneliness, and listening to Orca is best when taken as a solitary experience, the better to get entwined with the songs’ swirling guitars and moody, echoing vocals.
19. The Damnwells, No One Listens To The Band Anymore (PledgeMusic)
The band we formerly knew as The Damnwells is gone, the victim of bad record deals and musicians growing older. But frontman (and primary songwriter) Alex Dezen remains at the helm of a rotating cast of musicians, and thankfully the music hasn’t suffered. Here’s what I wrote about the album:
No One Listens To The Band Anymore contains some of Dezen’s best songwriting to date (on "Werewolves" and "The Same Way"), and while the band created the album without label influence or interference nothing in its sound seems to have changed. Not that it’s a bad thing, mind you. The band keeps it mostly low-key throughout, understandable given Dezen likely wrote much of the album acoustically. He also continues his use of humor to make a point, such as on "The Great Unknown" ("Oh beautiful for spacious skies / what a shitty soundtrack of our lives…"), and remains adept at writing hooks–not that the general public ever paid attention (see the Golden Days documentary for more on the band’s past). The album suffers lyrically in spots, most notably on "She Goes Around" ("Yeah, she goes around-round / She goes up, down, and she’s goes around / Yeah, she goes around-round / I go up, down, and she goes around"). But this is a minor offense on an otherwise thoughtful album. What ultimately sticks are catchy songs like "Feast of Hearts" and "The Monster," which listeners will be humming for hours after listening.
20. Sideshow Tramps, Revelator (ZenHill)
This Houston-based collective is made up of some of the city’s finest–and hard-working–musicians whose live shows are frenzied and demand crowd participation. The songs on Revelator are reworked versions of previously unreleased recording sessions, and the extra attention was obviously well-spent. The band’s music is hard to pin down, but there’s a classic quality to the Tramp’s sound, with touches of folk, old soul, and downhome country. Whatever it is, there’s no denying its originality.
VIDEOS: "Tramps and Freaks" (live)
What were some of your favorites this year? Feel free to a comment or send me an email.
Also, please be sure to check back soon for Houston Calling‘s favorite Houston releases of 2011.